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Startling New Report Shines Light on Farm Labor Conditions - and They Ain't Good

For related articles and more information, please visit OCA's Fair Trade page, Farm Issues page, and our Florida News Page page.

Most corporations involved in the food business quietly benefit from the invisibility of U.S. farmworkers. Bon Appetit Management Co., a U.S. subsidiary of the U.K.-based, transnational catering giant Compass Group, has done something odd: It has partnered with the nation's leading farm worker's union, the United Farm Workers of America, to produce a blunt, important report on the conditions of farm labor in the United States [PDF].

How weird is that? Well, most of Bon Appetit's peers in the food industry prefer not to examine conditions in farm fields. They bargain hard for the lowest price they can get for raw materials, and their bargaining power only makes things worse for field workers. To survive selling perishable goods to vast firms like McDonald's and Walmart, farm operators scale up and strive to maximize production while keeping costs as low as possible. One way to slash costs is to pay as little as possible for labor.

Thus we get situations like the one in Immokalee, Fla., where a handful of growers control a vast winter-tomato production machine, and are in turn dominated by a few big supermarket and fast-food buyers. The Immokalee situation metastasized into a scenario where a large group of migrant laborers were working for sub-poverty wages and living in housing with prices befitting Manhattan and amenities befitting Apartheid-era Soweto. When those conditions are "normal," no one should be surprised that outright slavery crops up. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) had the insight that these conditions couldn't begin to change until they challenged corporate buyers to pay more for tomatoes. Their penny-per-pound campaign forced McDonald's, Burger King, and Taco Bell to pay more for tomatoes so that farmworkers could get a raise.